The Dress Up Box

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” Wren’s father was saying, “maybe because it’s childish or silly.” They were driving down country roads at night, a place without interruptions, unless you caused them. “But when I was in grade school, I told the teacher I wanted to be a philosopher. And she said, ‘you can’t do that. Philosophers don’t exist anymore.’” Wren considered remarking that was a rather philosopher-like statement for someone claiming they didn’t exist anymore, but instead he was quiet. “I was young, and in school, and you just,” father paused. “Close the door.”

They were driving to a Christmas display in a suburb of Milwaukee: model trains, Santas, reindeer, trees. Thankfully the nativity scene was in a separate building from all of that. Thankfully, too, PJ recognized them as celebrities: “Mama Mary!” “Daddy Joseph!” he would announce whenever they came into view, his voice inflecting as if this was both obvious and a surprise. It was the benefit to childhood: the surprise of the obvious.

This vacation – a word particularly appropriate here, since they were regularly vacating the house – was ordered by Lily’s three-year-old son PJ, or as Wren called him, Napoleon. The child had a need to explore new territories and claim them. On one such adventure, Wren and Lily took PJ to some strip mall retail space that had been converted to an indoor complex for kids. It was overflowing with them, like oatmeal that had been microwaved too long. A large area in the middle featured a playground of tunnels, and each side was lined with themed rooms: a science lab, laser tag, a castle. To Wren, it felt like the setting for one of those first person shooter games from the mid-late ‘90s. You never knew what would come at you from behind, from a doorway, from across the openness.

Eventually, PJ found the theater-themed room with the dress up box, which was inevitable, as Lily was the director and drama teacher at a small high school in Oregon. A girl was already in there, performing for her mother, drowning in a princess gown. PJ reached for her, for it, for her right to have it. Then he turned to the box, tossing every item to the side, until another gown appeared. He carried it to Lily, tried to put it on, expecting her to help. “Oh, no, honey,” Lily said, “why don’t we find something else for you?” But PJ’s expression was pained, her response, incomprehensible. He had found a costume and no substitute would be accepted. “Alright,” Lily resigned. “Your dad’s not here. Don’t tell him, okay?”

Wren watched this, as if his body was a robot, and he was inside it, staring out, frozen at the controls. He was remembering times before, with a preschool teacher, his mother, Lily, friends, people who wanted him to play and wanted to protect him and didn’t understand how it had become an either/or. Wren was about to speak, but could not; it was some sort of phantom stroke. Meanwhile Lily blocked PJ, ensuring that his dad was not approaching, that he couldn’t exit the room. Somehow, though, another boy bypassed her and entered. Wren tracked him with narrowed eyes and a hardening heart, readying words that could dig below ground level and cut the boy down, if he said a word about PJ’s wardrobe. He didn’t.

When they got home, Lily put in the recording of her recent production of The Sound of Music. Wren hated the musical with a hatred that is only possible in someone who played a Von Trapp child. If you asked him – although I would suggest asking about another subject – if you asked him, The Sound of Music was not a comforting institution; it was a huge bright awning that had hung around too long. But he loved Lily. They all watched it.

Mother Superior sang with astonishing age and authority, the backdrop of the hills was quite lovely, the Baroness gave good face throughout and there were some perfectly darling vintage shoes, which only fit high school girls anyway. The student playing what had been Wren’s part, Friedrich, was a gangly creature without much presence or instinct, yet his voice was pure: “I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye goodBYE!” He popped the high note like champagne, surprising, delightful. PJ, however, had very limited patience for anytime the stage was not occupied by Maria and/or the nuns, to whom he was completely devoted. Of course, thought Wren.

“I should have known not to trust a three-year-old with a secret,” Lily rolled her eyes to Wren later, when they were alone. “The first person he told about the princess dress was his dad. But he was mostly incoherent so I don’t think Shane understood.” Did Lily not remember? No, no, it was not her responsibility to remember, they were his memories, why couldn’t Wren simply reach back and pull them forward? Those years of confusion, of feeling like a gift that had been put in a box from a different store and disappointed everyone upon opening. But it had gotten better, hadn’t it? Just as they said it would? Yes. But not because of them. Because of who had given the gift of himself.

Wren was allowing the memories now. At around – 11 years old? – he was playing dress up with a friend and his father came in. He paused, looked for a long moment, shook his head, went out. Wren was wearing women’s shoes. They weren’t heels, just sparkly flats that made a fantastic sound when you walked. His father stared at his son, unable to reason, the man who should have been a philosopher.


The door bell rings, and my dogs explode into a cycle of agitation and pompousness: “Who could it be? Jeffrey Dahmer? Billy Graham? Gloria Estefan? Who cares! We love the sound of our own voices!” It is a pitiful yowling hysteria, though they think it a thunderously dignified display. My dogs love the sound of their own voice (like humans), although I suspect if I recorded it and played it back they wouldn’t love it any more (also like humans). ShuddUP! SHUDDUP! I gingerly wade through the furry waves of dog towards the front door and open it.

It’s my cousin Angela. Her sweatshirt, earrings and eyeshadow are all turquoise – a color made for tropical waters and fifth grade girls. Angela is not a fifth grade girl, though sometimes it seems like it. She’s twenty-two, but doesn’t learn at the same speed as others her age. The condition has some repugnantly polite name, nearly as repugnantly polite as calling it a condition. But I prefer to imagine all her blood deciding to stay home, in the heart, and not travel to the head. This is better, really, I believe it makes her a better person. And she’s so beautiful. She’s a beautiful men can’t quite fantasize about, because they’d feel guilty afterward.

When we were young she was the only one with the mad imagination, farcical tendencies and preference for all forms of exaggerated feminity that matched my own. We wanted to be Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (She’s so thin because she’s always dancing. We must always keep dancing.) or Ariel in The Little Mermaid (Ways I Am Like Ariel: 1. Red hair! 2. Female-fish anatomy?) Within two minutes together, our jog pants and T-shirts would be converted to whorish hyperbole, including pink plastic heels and feather boas. Then we’d get out her tea set and promise to be careful with every intention not to be. Cups were filled with water (her mother’s idea) then tipped over/thrown/dropped as quickly as possible, then refilled again. We seemed to fall out of chairs more than we sat in them. We called it “crazy tea party,” adding an unwitting anti-British element to playtime.

This was all before Love blew a spitwad in her eye, which slid down her cheek, impersonating tears in a way that was vicious, not funny. You would think Love would pick a little man to be the pilot of that spitwad. She didn’t. He was tall. Taahll. Tuawwl. In any accent he was tall. A man who was much older than her. That much had a mouth full of years, a potbelly of years, pockets stuffed with years. The years were a dare; a do-it-now-or-you’re-not-alive dare. The years were a functional alcoholic:

  • I can do this.
  • I’m in control.
  • I feel fabulous.
  • I feel fucking fabulous.
  • I’m God.
  • No, I’m David Bowie.

I don’t know if that’s how she felt, but I know that’s how I felt, the first time I met him. Not her former him, my former him. He respected our age difference, respected me, respected himself. Respect is such a good strategy it doesn’t need a strategy. “I’m a lot older than you,” he said. “No you’re not,” I said.

Angela met her former him for coffee the other day, which made her father’s red face get even redder. So red that looking at it makes your heart beat faster, makes you want to eat more vegetables. Why so red, father? Because I’m Italian, and I have high blood pressure, and MY DAUGHTER TRIED TO KILL HERSELF OVER THIS MAN.

She tried to kill herself.

It was fantastically ineffective.

Thank God’s nose hairs, his eyelashes, his toenails for that.

It was phenomenally unsuccessful because of Angela’s boating accident in the birth canal. Her skull was hurt, so the skull took it out on the brain, and the brain took it out on logic. Anyway, when the time had come for trying to kill herself, she opted for drinking laundry detergent. Isn’t she spectacular? If she hadn’ t had that pre-birth business, she would have done something more logical and conclusive – perhaps leaning too far over a ledge…and I do appreciate her picking something outside of social acceptability, not to mention the determination. Her taste buds must have cringed with courteous disgust through the introductions: Oh, hi, Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols, It’s nice to meet you, Xylene sulfonate. Ultimately, though, anything’s preferable to lying in front of a lawnmower (“What are you doing?” “Oh hi.” “Yes, hi. Could you move? I don’t want to run over you.” “You know it’s really fine. Just go ahead, you’ve got to get this lawn mowed.” “Your life is more important than grass. Anyway, it’s not that long.” “Well, it is. You almost didn’t see me. You almost didn’t stop.” “Uh, okay. Actually there’s a good twenty feet – were you trying to kill yourself or not?”).

Angela formed a business partnership with prescription medication, and they got through it together, ended up in the black. So she asked her former him to meet her for coffee. He treated her with an unfeeling friendliness, like you would a postal worker. Angela braved the pleasantries. They said goodbye, he indifferently, she intensely. This is how things end, she thought, with nothing at all. She came home to her mother. Her mother, who raised Angela like she was a full bowl of tomato soup being carried across white carpeting, careful, I can do this, carefully.

We do not talk about any of this, standing in the front hallway. My dogs are loving her now, with their tongues, paws, ears, tails. She is smiling at them, and at me, with big eyes that are even brighter than her eyeshadow.